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Daily Howler: Zeno couldn't cross a room. And we can't achieve full coverage
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ZENO’S UNIVERSAL COVERAGE! Zeno couldn’t cross a room. And we can’t achieve full coverage: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, JUNE 16, 2009

This is your progressive movement on 1935: The NewsHour has worked its magic again, convincing Letterman that he done wrong! There’s a reason why this show is called “the conscience of upscale Connecticut.” (Details below.)

Presumably, then, this will be our final note on the Letterman/Palin fandango. But we didn’t see this CNN panel discussion until a rerun over the weekend. And the panel illustrated a point with real precision.

Last Thursday, Campbell Brown asked a panel to evaluate Letterman’s jokes about Palin. Twice, Jeffrey Toobin said he disapproved of the old coot’s “slutty” joke. “I have a problem with the slutty line,” Toobin said. “I think that was totally inappropriate.”

The second time around, progressive thinker Sam Seder offered his own “analysis.” This is your progressive movement on the year 1935:

BROWN (6/11/09): Why is Sarah Palin such an easy target?

SEDER: Well, every time she opens her mouth, she helps the comedian. She goes halfway for the comedian there.


SEDER: I mean, she—it's like T-ball with her. It's not even softball. I mean, she just literally holds it out there. And frankly, I don't even think that joke was sexist, per se. Letterman has—

TOOBIN: Look, there are certain rules, I think. Look, we are talking about jokes. But I don't think it's fair to say it's just a joke. You can have offensive jokes. It's not a free range. Just— If you say, “it's just a joke,” you can say anything. It just seems to me that referring to a public figure, a woman, as a slut, it just— You know, that's a line you shouldn't cross.

SEDER: But he, but he didn't do that! He said—he talked about her slutty makeup!

TOOBIN: “Slutty flight attendant.”

SEDER: Well, no, but he— There is a big difference there, because he is talking about appearance.

He didn’t call Palin a slut, Seder said. He was talking about her slutty appearance! There really is a big difference there, the gentleman thoughtfully said.

The cluelessness there is just stunning. Presumably, this resembles the way most white people “reasoned” in 1935. In that era’s majority entertainment, it was routine to subject African-Americans to standard forms of ridicule. People like Seder couldn’t see the problem with that. The jokes weren’t “racist, per se”—and everyone laughed! What was the fuss all about?

As we told you last week: Many people in today’s “progressive” movement have zero sexual politics. All that second-wave analysis, from Betty Friedan on, might as well never have happened. Seder seemed eager to let us know that he belongs to that “clueless cabal.” Here were his earlier comments, this time concerning the joke about Willow and/or Bristol Palin getting “knocked up” by Alex Rodriguez:

BROWN: Where is the line? Where do you draw the line between being provocative and being offensive when you're commentating, as these guys do, on the late-night talk shows?

SEDER: Well, I don't know if he's commentating. He's making a joke. But, that said, I am a father. And if someone made a joke about Alex Rodriguez knocking up my daughter, I would take offense. But that's because I'm a Red Sox fan!


SEDER: I mean, in the final analysis—I mean, it's a joke. People laugh. He told it again last night. And people laughed again. So, it is a funny joke. And he is, he is just a late-night comedian. And so, it's not as if he's delivering political commentary. He's simply making a joke. And he's done it for—he's done it for years and years. And he's done it about all sorts of people, all different ages.

It would be hard to get more clueless. For the record, it was this repeated insistence—“He’s simply making a joke!”—which led to Toobin’s later comment. (“I don't think it's fair to say it's just a joke. You can have offensive jokes.”)

By almost everybody’s reckoning, Toobin is right, of course. In 2009, would anyone offer Seder’s analysis if we were talking about a “joke” involving standard racial denigrations? (Just this week, such a joke was aimed at Michelle Obama. Did anyone offer Seder’s critique?) In that circumstance, would anyone say, “But it was just a joke! And everyone laughed! So it’s a funny joke!” Obviously, no one would say such things about insulting, stereotypical racial jokes. Yet here was Seder, offering this critique of a joke in which a tottering old fellow derided a woman as “slutty.”

We won’t even try to explain why you shouldn’t call women slutty. You can explain it as much as you like; people like Seder won’t get it. For them, it’s 1935—and everyone’s sharing a good solid laugh. Just remember the framework we offered last week: Absolutely no sexual politics.

By the way: It’s great to see Seder has a daughter. As David Letterman once might have joked: What a lucky girl!

Father of all distinctions: It might be worth listing the string of distinctions Seder was able to churn.

First, Letterman wasn’t commentating; he was just telling a joke. And he wasn’t calling Palin a slut; he was just saying she has a slutty appearance. And it wasn’t just any joke; everyone laughed, so the joke was funny. We recall the silence of fellows like this as Naomi Wolf got gender-trashed for a month.

George Bush ended up in the White House. Happy with how that turned out?

If you believe that, we’ve got a topiary garden in Greenwich we might be willing to sell you: On last night’s program, Letterman explained the way he finally saw the light.

He was watching last Friday’s NewsHour, he said, when “this commentator, the columnist Mark Shields, was talking about how I had made this indefensible joke about the 14-year-old girl. And I thought, 'Oh, boy, now I'm beginning to understand what the problem is here. It's the perception rather than the intent.' It doesn't make any difference what my intent was. It's the perception.”

If you believe that, we’ve got a set of keys to Imus’ place in Westport we might be willing to sell you.

ZENO’S UNIVERSAL COVERAGE: We chuckled when we read today’s New York Times. And we thought about Zeno’s famous paradoxes.

More on Zeno a bit further down. The article which occasioned our chuckling appeared above the fold, on page one. Robert Pear was discussing the possible cost of Obama’s health overhaul. These were his opening paragraphs:

PEAR (6/16/09): President Obama went before a convention of receptive but wary doctors on Monday to make the economic case for a health care overhaul, both for the nation and for the physicians’ own bottom lines.

But as the president spoke at the annual conference of the American Medical Association in Chicago, it became clear that one of the major health plans on the table would cost at least $1 trillion over 10 years yet leave tens of millions of people uninsured.

Our analysts emitted low chuckles. We could spend another trillion dollars—and tens of millions would still be uninsured! To understand our analysts’ mordant laughter, consider a pair of letters which appeared in the Times just Tuesday.

The letters ran beneath this headline: “Clues to the Health Care Puzzle.” The second letter was from an internist. He included a naughty fact:

LETTER TO THE NEW YORK TIMES (6/9/09): The Obama administration doesn’t need to raise taxes to fix health care. It needs to cut the cost dramatically. This can be done only by abandoning the fee-for-service payment model. The problem with fee-for-service is not merely that it pays providers to provide service; it pays them to create service as well. It is this almost limitless ability of doctors to create service that makes our per capita health care costs twice that of any other developed country.

If physicians were salaried employees with modest incentives for productivity and outcomes, we could, in very short order, have affordable health care for all.

G— B—
Warren, R.I.

Uh-oh! He mentioned the fact that we already spend twice as much, per capita, on health care as other developed nations—nations which already have universal coverage. (He also explained why he thought we spend so much.) But the first letter-writer didn’t mention this truly remarkable fact. Perhaps as a result, he couldn’t wait to spend even more!

LETTER TO NEW YORK TIMES (6/9/09): If it means raising taxes to pay for universal health coverage, so be it. It seems to me that tax and spend for universal health care coverage is better for America than cutting taxes and being forced to borrow. It would be a sign of substantial progress if politicians could begin to win elections even if they say they support raising taxes.

Private-sector insurance companies are so caught up in making money that they do not want to relinquish control of the health care system. Health care is for people, not profit. If we truly love our neighbors as we love ourselves, we should be willing to pay for health care for all.

P— W—
Louisville, Ky.

Jesus favored spending more too! Our analysts emitted low chuckles that day, as they perused those two letters.

The irony here should be obvious. We’re already spending twice as much as countries which already have universal coverage—and PW is willing to pay more to get what they already have! The oddness of this framework would occur to almost anyone in a different context. To wit:

You buy a car for $40,000. Your neighbor buys a car for half that amount—and his car is better! Someone then says your car can be almost as good as his—if you spend six thousand more.

Almost anyone would see the oddness of that situation. And yet, that’s the situation which obtains with our health care system. But so what! PW is eager to spend that six grand. In all likelihood, he doesn’t know the fact GB included—the fact that we’re already spending twice as much as the countries which have what we want.

Why doesn’t PW know that fact? Because of today’s New York Times! In the Times, Pear writes a perfectly accurate report about possible costs—but he doesn’t mention the remarkable fact which lies at the heart of our odd situation. Other countries already have what we seek—and they spend half as much as we do! You can read Pear’s report without learning that fact. In Pear’s report, we contemplate spending a trillion more—and still falling short of our goal.

We thought of poor Zeno as we read that report—Zeno, who proved, with his famous paradoxes, that you can never quite cross a room. You can get halfway, then halfway again—but you’ll never quite get all the way. New books still attempt to explain the way in which Zeno’s logic breaks down (click here). But don’t worry! If anyone ever figures that out, it won’t appear in the Times.

For the most part, American citizens didn’t chuckle when they read Pear’s report today. For decades, the basic frameworks of this debate have largely been kept from their view. How often do you read the fact which appeared in that letter from GB? As they perused Pear’s report today, how many Times readers thought to themselves: But we already spend twice as much!

Your current car cost 40 grand. But in France, they have better cars—for 20. For sixty years, your big news orgs haven’t told you that fact. We can’t tell you why that censorship exists. But we do emit low chuckles every time we encounter it.

For extra credit: First question: Have you ever seen a news report in the Times or the Post explaining why we spend twice as much as nations which have full coverage?

Second question: Could Zeno cross the room in that 40 grand car? As we all know: Yes, he could. Could he cross it better for 20?

Final question: What if he put an extra trillion into the car which cost 20 grand? How fast could he cross the room then? Within our thoroughly broken discussion, inquiring minds don’t want to know.